Activists protest against fossil fuels

Activists protest against fossil fuels on the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates on December 5, 2023.

(Photo: by Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

Relying on Carbon Capture and Storage Could Unleash 'Carbon Bomb'

"We need to cut through the smoke and mirrors of 'abated' fossil and keep our eyes fixed on the goal of 1.5°C," said a co-author of a new analysis.

While the United Nations climate summit continued in the Middle East, researchers in Germany warned Tuesday that depending on technology to trap and sequester planet-heating pollution could unleash a "carbon bomb" in the decades ahead.

Specifically, the new briefing from the Berlin-based think thank Climate Analytics states that reliance on carbon capture and storage (CCS) could release an extra 86 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere between 2020 and 2050.

"The climate talks at COP28 have centered around the need for a fossil fuel phaseout," the publication notes, referring to the United Arab Emirates-hosted U.N. conference. "But some are calling for this to be limited to 'unabated' fossil fuels."

"The term 'abated' is being used as a Trojan horse to allow fossil fuels with dismal capture rates to count as climate action."

Over 100 countries at COP28 support calling for "accelerating efforts toward phasing out unabated fossil fuels," or operations that don't involve technological interventions such as CCS," as Common Dreams reported earlier Tuesday.

The new briefing highlights the risks of targeting only unabated fossil fuels. Contrary to claims that significant oil and gas consumption can continue thanks to new tech, it says, "pathways that achieve the Paris agreement's 1.5°C limit in a sustainable manner show a near complete phaseout of fossil fuels by around 2050 and rely to a very limited degree, if at all, on fossil CCS."

Additionally, "there is no agreed definition of the concept of abatement," and "a weak definition of 'abated'—or even no definition at all—could allow poorly performing fossil CCS projects to be classed as abated," the document explains. The report's authors suggest that the focus on unabated fossil fuels is driven by polluters who want to keep cashing in on wrecking the planet.

"The term 'abated' is being used as a Trojan horse to allow fossil fuels with dismal capture rates to count as climate action," declared report co-author Claire Fyson. "'Abated' may sound like harmless jargon, but it's actually language deliberately engineered and heavily promoted by the oil and gas industry to create the illusion we can keep expanding fossil fuels."

Climate Analytics CEO Bill Hare, who also contributed to the document, said that "the false promises of 'abated' fossil fuels risks climate finance being funneled to fossil projects, particularly oil and gas, and will greenwash the 'unabatable' emissions from their final use, which account for 90% of fossil oil and gas emissions."

Report co-author Neil Grant stressed that "we need to cut through the smoke and mirrors of 'abated' fossil and keep our eyes fixed on the goal of 1.5°C. That means slashing fossil fuel production by around 40% this decade, and a near complete phaseout of fossil fuels by around 2050."

As a Tuesday analysis from the Civil Society Equity Review details, a "fair" phaseout by mid-century would involve rich nations ditching oil and gas faster than poor countries, and the former pouring billions of dollars into helping the latter. The United States, for example, should end fossil fuel use by 2031 and contribute $97.1 billion per year toward the global energy transition.

The United States is putting money toward what critics call "false solutions" like carbon capture, and it is not alone. An Oil Change International (OCI) report from last week notes that "governments have spent over $20 billion—and have legislated or announced policies that could spend up to $200 billion more—of public money on CCS, providing a lifeline for the fossil fuel industry."

OCI found that rather than permanently sequestering carbon dioxide, 79% of the global CCS capacity sends captured CO2 to stimulate oil production in aging wells, which is called "enhanced oil recovery." The group also reviewed six leading plants in the United States, Australia, and the Middle East, and concluded that they "overpromise and underdeliver, operating far below capacity."

Lorne Stockman, OCI's research director, asserted last week that "governments need to stop pretending that fossil fuels aren't the problem. Instead of throwing a multibillion-dollar lifeline to the fossil fuel industry with our tax dollars, they should fund real climate solutions, including renewable energy and energy efficiency. Fossil fuel phaseout must be the central theme of COP28, not dangerous distractions like CCS propped up with public money."

Underscoring Stockman's point that such projects are incredibly expensive, the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment on Monday published research showing that a high carbon capture and storage pathway to net-zero emissions in 2050 could cost at least $30 trillion more than a low CCS pathway.

"Relying on mass deployment of CCS to facilitate high ongoing use of fossil fuels would cost society around a trillion dollars extra each year—it would be highly economically damaging," said Rupert Way, an honorary research associate at the school.

"Any hopes that the cost of CCS will decline in a similar way to renewable technologies like solar and batteries appear misplaced," he added. "Our findings indicate a lack of technological learning in any part of the process, from CO2 capture to burial, even though all elements of the chain have been in use for decades."

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